One of the inevitable consequences of spending way too much time on social media is a high level of awareness of awareness days/weeks/months. Tweets or Facebook posts with a particular colour ribbon, or link to variously devastating or heartwarming stories are a significant feature of my timelines. I know, now, much more than I used to about a whole range of illnesses and conditions, which can only be a good thing (apart from the hypochondriac tendency to wonder if I’m spotting some of the early symptoms in myself of my children).
The tweets and posts more often than not, especially over a period of time, tell me things about friends or acquaintances which under other circumstances I would perhaps never have known. They are a glimpse into the lives behind the smile at the school gate or the friendly chatter in the park; an often dark hint at pain or struggle which otherwise would go unseen.
There is no way in which I think that the breaking down of taboos around illnesses – both mental and physical – is anything but positive. The burden of sickness is heavy enough without the additional load of shame and feeling that the suffering should remain unseen. On the grander scale of national public life, hearing about the problems of celebrities and others can help the rest of us speak more freely to family, friends and colleagues, even if tolerance and acceptance are not as forthcoming as they should be. They can help dispel misplaced ignorance and fear. They can prompt an earlier visit to the doctor which could change or even save a life.
Nevertheless, on the more intimate scale of everyday life, it can create a strange combination of knowing and unknowing. I might act differently – consciously or otherwise – to the friend of a friend I know has ongoing problems with depression than to her neighbour who has never mentioned any. Surely there has always, in any given situation, been the unspoken hierarchy of suffering, sympathy and consideration; but has it become accelerated or even unbalanced in this world of increased, if partial, sharing?
Raising awareness and speaking out are vital, but so too is remembering that they can only ever create a set of known knowns. A problem unshared is a problem still, whether it’s public knowledge or not; some people don’t want to tell, and though chipping away at the factors which mean that is the case is vital, some never will. It’s tempting, especially nowadays when social media means so many of us do consciously craft an image of ourselves, to see what people say about themselves as a kind of full disclosure, but it’s worth remembering that things may remain unsaid, yet sore.
I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes, as I’ve said before, but this one remains true.